Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Drawing the line

From: Inside edge

Where does sensible asset management stop and social cleansing begin?

That’s the issue highlighted for me by the sale of ‘Britain’s most expensive council house’ and the protest that followed.

I put that in inverted commas because I’m not sure the building near Borough Market in Southwark was actually being used as a house but what is clear that it was sold at auction for £2.96 million, 30 per cent more than was expected last week.

The council’s case is that it’s better to sell and use the proceeds building 20 new council homes than keep it when it needs £500,000 worth of repair and refurbishment work. ‘I think that’s a no-brainer and most people do apart from the protestors,’ cabinet member for regeneration Fiona Colley told me yesterday.

Put like that, it’s hard to disagree. Social landlords all over the country have to make decisions about the best use of their assets. But there is a continuum involved here. At one end you might have a tower block that will cost more to maintain than it will to knock down and build replacement homes. At the other, you might have Policy Exchange’s proposal for Ending Expensive Social Tenancies. Grant Shapps, the housing minister at the time, considered it ‘blindingly obvious’ and the influential think tank is pushing the idea on twitter again this morning. I didn’t think so much of the idea when I blogged about it at the time.

But what happens with proposals that fall somewhere between those two extremes? The ‘£3 million council house’ is not the only example in Southwark. At Neo Bankside, a swanky new riverside development near Tate Modern, the original plan was that the ‘affordable’ housing contribution would be on site. But Fiona Colley explains: ‘We found that even at 25 per cent, the smallest share, they were only affordable on a household income of £90,000, which is above the income limit to qualify. So we recognised that and took £10 million to fund 170 council homes which to us makes much more sense.’

Again it seems hard to argue that this is more sensible than, for example, this £720,000 ‘affordable’ home that I was alerted to by a commenter on my blog. A 25 per cent share can be yours for £2,444 a month in rent, mortgage and service charges, half the post-tax income of a household on the maximum qualifying income of £80,000.

Yet the protestors in Southwark beg to disagree. Housing Action Southwark and Lambeth argue on the Guardian’s Comment is Free that there is no justification for selling off council houses during a housing crisis.

The occupation is partly a protest against draconian new laws on squatting but also is also happening in the context of the regeneration/gentrification of the wider area. ‘Southwark council has tried to justify the sale by promising to build 20 new council homes with the profits,’ they say, ‘but after the ongoing Heygate estate scandal, it is difficult to take them at their word.’

That is of course a reference to the controversial regeneration of the Heygate estate near the Elephant. Southwark sees it as part of a wider regeneration plan that will bring homes and jobs to the whole area but, as the final few leaseholders get ready to leave by Monday, that’s not the way campaigners see it at all.

The same issues are cropping up all over London (but not just in London) and pitting residents against local authorities and developers. Think Hammersmith & Fulham’s plans for Earl’s Court and two nearby council estates or Lambeth’s sell-off of short-life housing or Newham’s stalled plan to demolish the Carpenters Estate to make way for a new campus for UCL.

You have to draw the line somewhere - but where exactly? The boundaries between regeneration, gentrification and social cleansing lie somewhere between the tower block that’s falling down and the Policy Exchange sell-off plan. As with previous rounds of regeneration, including those that created the estates in the first place, they involve issues of resident involvement and consent, the use of the proceeds for new housing and the conditions for the offer of new homes. These have to be balanced against the interests of the wider community. 

So the issues and the boundaries are not new and perhaps it’s only possible to draw the line on a case by case basis. But bigger social and economic processes are at work now: growing inequalities of income and wealth, globalisation, financial pressure on local authorities, welfare reform and the escalating cost of housing. What would the outcome be if the battle of Coin Street were fought again today?

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